The connected car: Coming soon to a street near you?

6 min read

The idea of the connected car and of vehicles communicating with some kind of infrastructure have been developing for some time, and it appears the technologies involved are beginning to come together.

In their 'stripped down' state, the ideas are laudable: cars that communicate with each other to avoid collisions; an infrastructure that keeps vehicles informed of traffic conditions and weather; and so on. But taking those apparently simple ideas from the drawing board to the roadside is a mammoth task, not only involving the roll out of a completely new infrastructure, but also the development of new technologies, including specific communication methods to enable cars to 'talk'. The technologies involved have been reduced to acronyms – C2C, for car to car and C2I, for car to infrastructure – are just two, with the option to substitute V (for vehicle) for C. These technologies will be the subject of much discussion at the forthcoming ITS World Congress in Tokyo. In one of the executive sessions delegates will hear about plans to deploy such systems. In the abstract for the session, ITS claims connected and cooperative vehicle programmes are moving quickly toward implementation. 'Private firms are readying hardware and V2V systems', it says, 'while infrastructure operators are working to define opportunities for field infrastructure'. Andrew Ashby is new business development manager for Plextek, the Cambridge based design consultancy with more than a passing interest in vehicle telematics. He said C2C activity is ramping up. "There has been some interesting work undertaken over the last couple of months, with a C2C group involving about 12 European companies pushing hard to reach agreement on the requirements." Ashby said that, as far as Plextek is concerned, technology isn't the critical factor. "There is a range of other factors that will come into play," he observed. "Business cases will be fundamental to any roll out and there needs to be discussions on issues such as liability and ownership. Ideally, C2C and C2V systems will work perfectly, but if things go wrong, people will be asking questions." Ashby pointed to the V2X for Auto Safety and Mobility Europe 2013 conference, held in February in Frankfurt. "There was an interesting session on liability," he noted. "One of the demonstrations was of three cars locked together in a convoy using a combination of radio, gps and point to point communications. When someone steps out in front of the first car, all three have to brake hard; does the driver brake or does the car stop itself? What if the technology fails? What is the liability? It's a big question which has yet to be answered." And it's the business cases which raise some of the more interesting questions about V2X. One potential application for V2V technology is truck platooning, something which has been pursued recently by Swedish truck manufacturer Scania. Scania and the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute have been testing truck platooning systems on the 520km route between Södertälje and Helsingborg. Truck platooning aims to lock a number of trucks closely together in order to save fuel. Tony Sandberg, systems predevelopment manager with Scania R&D, explained. "Reducing aerodynamic drag by drafting comes naturally to fish, birds, cross country skiers and cyclists," he said. Maintaining a 25m gap between trucks in a three truck convoy will reduce drag by 30% for the second truck in the line and 40% for the third truck. But the lead truck also gains some advantage from being 'pushed' by an improvement in the rear aerodyamics. Scania started its trials using adaptive cruise control to maintain the appropriate gaps between trucks. However, the company has targeted reducing the gap to 10m, at which distance ACC begins to struggle. To overcome this, Scania is implementing wireless communications between all trucks in the platoon so if the first truck brakes, all following trucks will brake simultaneously and automatically. "We're interested in whether these substantial savings can actually be achieved in a real traffic environment," said project manager Anders Johansson. "How is surrounding traffic affected? How do drivers feel about platooning?" Ashby looked again at the business case. "If you stack trucks together closely, you may be able to save on fuel costs. But the truck at the front may not get all the benefits, so the driver won't want to be there. So how can a business case be put together which benefits everyone?" While tests have been conducted with three trucks in a platoon, there's no reason why that number can't be increased. That raises different issues, including the length of the convoy. Motorways are generally busy places; what happens if there is a 20 truck convoy and you're trying to join the flow? "The infrastructure could jam up," Ashby suggested, "so joining and leaving features will need to be developed that allow cars on to and off the road." Smartphones for road safety? Smartphones may have a central role to play in V2X applications. Mercedes-Benz is adding a smartphone based system to its production cars by the end of 2013, enabling information to be exchanged from V2V and V2I. Initially, the system will be based on Mercedes' Drive Kit Plus. By running Mercedes' Digital DriveStyle app, the vehicle can transmit and receive information simultaneously. When warning messages are issued near the vehicle, the driver is alerted and the hazard location marked on a map. "We are once again reaffirming our tradition as a safety pioneer and demonstrating that we are continuing to bring innovations to the roads with benefit for both our customers and also other road users," said Professor Dr Thomas Weber, a member of the board of management of Daimler AG with responsibility for group research and Mercedes-Benz cars development. Alongside V2V and V2I, there is the beginnings of V2P – pedestrian –technology. Honda R&D has demonstrated that a car equipped with dedicated short range communications (DSRC) technology can detect a pedestrian with a similarly enabled smartphone. The approach, which is based on cooperative communication between a smartphone and nearby vehicles, provides audible and visual warnings to both the pedestrian and drivers. "While these are still experimental technologies," said Jim Keller, chief engineer for Honda R&D Americas, "they provide a strong indication of the future potential for the kinds of advanced collision sensing and predictive technologies Honda is developing to further reduce the potential for serious accidents, injuries and even fatalities." Using the GPS features of the pedestrian's smartphone and DSRC wireless technology in the 5.9GHz band, the pedestrian and nearby vehicles establish a communications channel. This is said to be effective, even when the pedestrian is not easily detectable by the driver, such as when they are obscured behind a parked vehicle. A smartphone app determines the pedestrian's position, direction and speed, as well as the position of surrounding vehicles. If the app believes the pedestrian is in danger, the system issues a high volume warning, as well displaying a warning on the smartphone. Drivers, meanwhile, are similarly alerted to the potential collision. RFID to protect cyclists? A similar approach is being taken with Cycle Alert, a safety device about to be launched in York. Developed by the University of York and Transdev Unibus, the system is based on rfid communications. An rfid tag is mounted on the bike, with a reader on vehicles. When moving, the bike advertises its presence and this is detected by a vehicle's reader. This reports the received signal strength to a Cab Unit and, if the signal strength passes a given threshold, an alert is sounded and the cab display shows the bike's approximate location. Peter Le Masurier, co founder of Cycle Alert, said the system is designed to save cyclists lives. "It is a new cycle specific sensory system designed to alert drivers to the presence of a cyclist when close to their vehicle. It encourages both HGV drivers and cyclists to work together to take responsibility for making the road a safer place." Autonomous vehicles Despite their apparent autonomy, such vehicles will need to communicate continuously with other vehicles and with an infrastructure of some kind. Google has already made advances with driverless cars, but Nissan is the first major manufacturer to commit to production, potentially by 2020. Nissan is developing on a proving ground for the technology in Japan, where laser scanners, cameras and advanced vehicle intelligence and actuators will be tested. Nissan's executive vice president for R&D Mitsuhiko Yamashita says the Autonomous Drive vehicle will only become more intelligent. "I think the vehicle has a very high potential. What (it) can do from now is accumulate more knowledge and negotiations with all traffic conditions, and the vehicle will become smarter and smarter, as the vehicle accumulates that knowledge and data base. So this vehicle has big potential." "The driverless car is a hot topic," said Ashby, "and it seems a good idea until you start thinking about the 'corner cases'." He's worried about such aspects as security. "This will be needed at many levels," he said, "ranging from anonymous positional data, so cars know where traffic problems are, to more safety critical situations, where cars are communicating important information with each other. The security requirements are high; if they aren't, will it be safe for vehicles to interact?" Ashby believes there is a lot more to embedded security than you might think. "There's more to it than passing tokens. There will be a lot of algorithms needed and a lot of functional thinking about how data is transferred. One of the major issues will be proving that data actually comes from where you think it does." There is a danger then V2X technology will develop as point – even proprietary – solutions. The way to avoid this is for standards to be developed and agreed: "These systems have to work to the same standards otherwise they won't be able to interoperate. Standards have to be defined before technology can be rolled out." The EU may have a role here. If there is an EU Directive addressing V2X, governments will be obliged to require the technology to be applied. "The eCall emergency system is an example," Ashby contended. "Not many people particularly like the idea, but it is bringing on European standards." He believes V2I is 'already in place, to some extent, because people want to use what they already have in their pockets'. "The challenge is V2V and V2person," he concluded.